Although Mayor Richard Turner is running unopposed in the May 13 municipal election in Weehawken, two of his four Township Council candidates face opposition.
Deputy Mayor and 3rd Ward Councilman Robert Sosa is being challenged by Joseph Mendez and 2nd Ward Councilwoman Rosemary Lavagnino is being challenged by policeman Richard DeCosmis.
First Ward Councilwoman Carmela Silvestri-Ehret and Councilman-at-Large Robert Zucconi, along with Turner, are running unopposed.
In Weehawken, voters elect candidates to the council. The council then selects one of its own to serve as mayor. Turner has been mayor since he was first elected in 1990.
Turner questions their motives
Since both Mendez and DeCosmis have legal disputes with the township, Turner has questioned their motives for running.
DeCosmis did not want to talk about his lawsuit against the town, except to say that it started when he supported an anti-Turner candidate for freeholder, and was a result of the alleged political retaliation that has escalated since.
Turner said DeCosmis’ lawsuit’s goal isa promotion to captain, and that this is the motivation for his running.
“But if he wins as councilman, he will have to step down from the Police Department,” Turner said. In the past, employees of a municipality could take a leave of absence. “But the laws have changed.”
Mendez and DeCosmis claim that they are running to bring transparency to local government.
Turner said Mendez and DeCosmis do not attend meetings, except when it concerns their legal cases.
“Everyone has a right to run. But both men are running for their personal interests and not the interest of the community,” Turner said. Referring to DeCosmis, he said, “He hasn’t been to a council meeting. If he wants to talk about the budget, taxes and the park, he should come to meetings and see what we’ve done.”
Mendez runs on transparency
Mendez, a former Parking Authority employee who recently lost his wrongful termination suit against the township, currently works as a construction manager for T-Mobile. He said this is his first time running for office, and he chose to run because he feels the poorer sections of the township have been ignored and he did not want to see Turner’s ticket run unopposed.
Although Mendez and DeCosmis are running independently, both have many of the same issues.
“I think people are entitled to a government that is accountable and transparent,” Mendez said.
In talking to the public, Mendez said, parking, traffic, and taxes seem to be the most important issues, although his concern is transparency and a better accounting of government operations and of how taxpayer money is spent.
A lifelong resident of Weehawken, Mendez said he dropped out of high school, and eventually received his GED and went on to earn a degree in organizational management from Nyack College. He also served a six-month tour of duty in Iraq as an infantryman with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. He has two children, one who already went through the Weehawken school system, and another currently in Weehawken High School.
Mendez said he is particularly interested in making sure poorer residents are fully represented.
“A lot of people along Park Avenue are struggling,” he said. “That part of town has been neglected.”
Mendez said he also has questions about some of the public-private partnerships the township has become involved in over recent years, and wants public meetings to be aired on local TV.
Although he said he gets encouragement from the public, he believes people are fearful of putting up lawn signs and other signs that oppose the current administration.
Mendez said he has already come into conflict with a local ordinance that prohibits his putting up signs in public places; he has gotten around this along Park Avenue by posting his signs on the West New York/Union City side facing Weehawken. He said he had checked with the city prior to his campaign, at which point he learned of the restrictions.
“I’m also writing my message with chalk in the sidewalks,” he said. “I knock on doors where I can. But what I’m doing is considered solicitation, so I can’t go into senior buildings.”
Dispute about Park Avenue
Both Mendez and DeCosmis – while not on a joint ticket – claim Weehawken is a tale of two cities, one wealthy and the other poor, and that the Turner administration has focused on the wealthy side of town and largely ignored Park Avenue.
Park Avenue is Weehawken’s main commercial street, running north/south along the western side of the township. Mendez said Park Avenue has not seen necessary improvements except for things like the historic Water Tower.
But Turner disputed these claims.
“We’ve done a lot for Park Avenue,” Turner said in defense of his administration. He pointed to a number of initiatives for upgrading Park Avenue, including a façade improvement program that operates through Community Development to help split the cost of upgrading storefronts. In closing the infamous Park Avenue Hotel, the township not only eliminated one source of crime, but created 28 units of senior housing. The township also approved the closing of a boarding house on 46th Street which will become a condominium development.
Turner said store vacancies on Park Avenue are rare, and generally when a business does go out, a new business comes in to replace it within a short amount of time.
He said the town is looking for a new use for the former Capital One Bank, and wants to create office space for artists and businesses, as well as a food establishment. A burned out building from years ago has been turned to housing for families.
But Mendez said there are a number of things along Park Avenue that have been neglected, such as exposed wiring from fallen or removed light fixtures.
Turner said this is part of routine maintenance.
Mendez is challenging 3rd Ward incumbent Councilman Robert Sosa.
Sosa has been in public service in one manner or another for 40 years. He was elected to the council in 2004. Prior to that, he worked in public safety since 1975 as part of the Hudson County Prosecutor’s office, and as Weehawken Township police director from 1997 to 2003. He studied at the New England School of Law, Fairleigh Dickinson University and Stevens Academy.
He said for voters, the issues are always something important to them as individuals. When people come to him with questions, he doesn’t always know the answer, but he promises to find out and get back to them.
“Sometimes it isn’t always the answer they want to hear, but they know if they have other questions they can come to me,” he said.
He said listening to people and their concerns is a big part of his job as a council person, and often an issue one family faces may be faced by others in the community. Meeting people, whether at any of the number of events that go on in town or by simply walking from where he parks his car, Sosa learns about the community’s needs.
Maintaining rent control, he said, is significant in his ward, which has more tenants than in the other two wards combined. Not only does he pay attention to what people say, but he looks around when visiting these residents to see if landlords are making repairs and doing upgrades.
This isn’t just on Park Avenue, but on many of the side streets like 51st and 47th, he said.
He said there has been an effort to revitalize Park Avenue from upgrading sidewalks to getting rid of ugly iron gates. The township has an ordinance prohibiting signage on poles, and a beautified street instills pride in the neighborhoods. But he said people in the neighborhoods have to invest time and energy in these things as well.
“You can’t wait for the DPW to pick up papers that blow on the sidewalk,” he said. “Volunteers in our community help make this a wonderful township.”
He said preserving open space in a community as small as Weehawken is essential, and this is being done on all sides of town from the 11-acres waterfront park to the passive park near the American Legion. He said the township just broke ground for a tot park near the riverfront walkway.
“The township is not in Town Hall,” he said. “Town Hall is where we go, twice a month to pass laws and meetings. The real township is on the streets.”
DeCosmis is concerned with spending
Second Ward challenger Richard DeCosmis comes from a family of Weehawken police officers. He worked his way through the ranks, becoming a sergeant in 2001 and a lieutenant seven years later. Six years ago he was honored for heroic rescue of a man from the Hudson River.
A graduate of Weehawken High School and St. Peter’s College, DeCosmis said he is very concerned about the fiscal issues in Weehawken. He said this election differs from prior elections when the fiscal problems with the township were largely missed because of a better economy.
“The tax increases were hidden and people didn’t realize that they were being hit in the pocket book,” he said. “Unfortunately for Mayor Turner, people are starting to notice.”
He said tax increases in Weehawken exceed the county average and that Weehawken has $68 million in debt and just borrowed $20 million more recently.
Turner said, however, said the council voted to authorize potential borrowing at low interest through a county program in case the township needs to borrow in the future. Turner said the townships bond rating was increased by Moody’s recently, but DeCosmis said this is a lower rating than it had in the past.
“I want to stop waste in government,” DeCosmis said. “I want to keep residents informed. This is a town full of educated and intelligent people.”
He said he originally hoped that he could work with other members of the Township Council when he got elected, but that the negative campaign against him made him realize that his role would be as a watchdog for the taxpayers.
“I’m getting a fantastic reaction like I never expected,” he said.
He said he wants to look into waterfront properties and see if they are assessed differently and at a higher rate than property owners elsewhere in Weehawken.
Turner said taxes haven’t risen dramatically.
“Taxes are up, yes, but this is partly due to county taxes, which are based on the total wealth of our community,” Turner said. “It’s no accident that county taxes for Weehawken, Secaucus and Hoboken have gone up. Our property values have held pretty steady. Taxes do rise when you figure in school, county and municipal taxes. What we try to do is keep taxes as stable as possible. Anyone who tells you they can reduce taxes is lying. What you can do is cut back on increases and seek out new development.”
The town has several buildings under construction, he said, and that helps bring more rateables in. But the town also lost $3 million in state aid.
“We’re allowed to raise our budget 2 percent, we’re well below that in what we spend and tax,” Turner said. “We run a very frugal operation.”
Second Ward Councilwoman Rosemary J. Lavagnino has a long history of public involvement that includes the township Planning Board, the Weehawken Recreation and Parks Advisory Committee, the Weehawken Free Public Library Building Committee, the Water Tower Preservation Committee, the Weehawken Women’s Club and Weehawken Elks Club.
Well known for her efforts at preserving the Water Tower and the library, Lavagnino said she believes that developers who want to build in Weehawken ought to give back to the community.
“I’m known as a tough negotiator,” she said.
But whether this is a new park or a new dog run, the ultimate objective is to maintain the small-town feel of Weehawken.
“My main interest is in quality of life,” she said.
She said residents do not want to be confronted with annoying issues when they come back home from work, and it is her job to make certain that life is easier for those who live here.
Over the years, she has worked to preserve the views on the east side of the town, and the Water Tower on the western side. She has worked on the master plan and has helped in the creation of new parks for kids, and pocket parks for residence elsewhere in the township.
But it is not just the council that makes the city into a thriving place, she said, it is also the residents, many of whom come out as volunteers, fathers serving as coaches for Little League, professionals serving on various boards.
“We live up to the idea that it takes a village to keep a village going,” she said.
The second ward has also seen façade improvements, and a new park, and the redevelopment of the southern portion of the Pathmark Mall parking lot.
One site, where a two-story liquor store was proposed, has been redeveloped as a passive park, a place for passive reading or other similar activities.
A portion of the Historic Water Tower has been restored and opened for public events such as art shows, and reading events scheduled for the fall.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.